Home Sweet (Cape Cod) Home

Everyone loves a Cape house, whether it is yours for a week or a lifetime. While there are dozens of different styles of dwellings here on the Cape, there is an iconic architectural design known as the Cape Cod House that dates back 400 years and continues to have wide appeal today.

By Lisa Cavanaugh | Photography by Paul Kholman

The original English colonists transplanted their own timbered-structure style of home to their new land, designing sturdy, practical houses that could withstand both harsh winters and hot, humid summers. They crafted steep pitched roofs to deter snow accumulation, and placed fireplaces and chimneys in the center of their broad, low-ceilinged homes to radiate and trap warmth. Whenever possible, they would situate the house to receive abundant sunshine, and they used the nearby forests to obtain pine for flooring and cedar for shingles, which they allowed to weather into the familiar gray-colored siding we all know today.


Cape Cod houses come in many different shapes and sizes and range from functional to luxurious, depending on the needs of the homeowner. Pictured is the spacious full Cape.

A full Cape has a central door with two windows on either side; the three-quarter Cape has two windows on one side and one window on the other; on a half Cape, the door is positioned off-center with two windows to one side; and the relatively scarce quarter Cape house has just one single window to the side of the front door. Sometimes a central staircase would lead to a small upper level for children’s sleeping quarters, while on the first floor there would be a parlor, master bedroom and “keeping room”—an all-purpose cooking/dining/gathering area. The original utilitarian houses were reasonably unadorned, but many of their 17th-century functional elements have been transformed over the years into pleasing aesthetic elements.

Windows on either side of a central front door made practical sense, and had the happy result of presenting a welcoming aspect to visitors. The exterior shutters designed to protect against stormy winds are now usually decorative instead of functional. The interior wainscoting created to help combat moisture collecting on walls because of Cape Cod summer humidity is still a popular choice in the Cape Cod home design.

The “Cape Cod House” moniker was first coined in 1800 by the president of Yale College, Timothy Dwight, who visited the Cape and remarked on the ubiquitous local homes. Already the house style had spread beyond Massachusetts to New York, and soon after it grew in popularity in the Midwest as well, where various ornamentations were added throughout the 19th century.

•10 Pine Street • 20 Summer Street copy

The three-quarter Cape (left) and the half Cape

The original functionality of the Cape Cod house was adaptable into a charming modern form, which led to their widespread popularity during a colonial revival in the early and mid-20th century. In the 1930s, Boston architect Royal Barry Wills began designing innovative versions of the style and his homes became immensely popular, especially after the Second World War, when middle-class families were looking for modest but livable homes. His plans emphasized a pleasing scale and added full kitchens and modern bathrooms, plus extras like attached garages, which made the style very attractive to the American populace.

Contemporary Cape houses are direct, if more elaborate and commodious, descendants of our ancestors’ homes. You can find examples across the Cape, many with additions and modernizations that support current lifestyles. Architects and homeowners add numerous embellishments, such as front porches, family rooms, dormers and floor-to-ceiling windows, to provide space and light and to take advantage of the scenery.

Architect Robert Evans, who lives on the Cape and in New Mexico, has adapted and renovated Cape Cod style homes in both areas. Clients tend to want more living space and accessible storage, which can be positioned near upstairs dormers. He says that Southwestern homeowners also want steep pitched roofs since they have snowfall concerns, and they tend to favor open-floor plans. “Interior schemes in these areas are usually vaulted ceilings, which work to expand views of the beautiful southwest landscape,” says Evans.   


The Mulberry Cottage, circa 1640, was the homestead of Samuel Hinckley and his family. The full Cape is now one of the oldest homes along Route 6A in Barnstable Village. In 1997, the homeowners added a great room with a deck, master suite and office.

Some of the renovations he has completed here on Cape Cod have stayed with the basic footprint of the historic home, while others have opted for a more expansive design with additional living wings off a central full Cape structure, or elaborate additions to the back of the structure.

Regardless of the end result, the original concept remains the same: the impulse to honor our own regional architectural imprint. It’s been said that Cape-style houses may be the most recognized in the country. Here on Cape Cod, we know how eye-catching and hospitable the houses tend to be, and many of us are lucky enough to call one of them home.

Cape Cod in the Rockies 

Brown Residence 05

When Ken and Pam Brown started asking architects near their hometown of Monument, Colo., to design a Cape Cod house for them, they received blank stares. “It was like we were speaking a foreign language,” says Ken. But then they found Andy Stauffer of Stauffer and Sons Construction, who had a different response. “I said, ‘Sure, let’s do it!’” says Stauffer. “I immediately recognized it as a basic concept because, architecturally, Cape Cod houses are an iconic piece of American history.” Having only been to the East Coast once as a child, Stauffer had never actually stayed in a Cape Cod house. However, he researched layouts and style and worked with the Browns to design exactly what they wanted.

Despite being from Indiana originally, Pam has always admired the Cape Cod house style. “I love antiques and so I appreciate the way a Cape Cod house matches the furniture I like,” she says. Both she and her husband feel the style has a clearly defined look, with the central door and flanking windows on the front of the house. “It really says New England,” adds Pam, who works at a home furnishing shop and was very particular about including interior design elements like gate-latch door handles and vintage lights.

For Stauffer, the challenge was adapting the style to Colorado’s climate, including using a fiber cement siding to look like painted wood, since wood siding materials aren’t used in Colorado like they are on the East Coast. He also had to resist the urge to incorporate a “Rocky Mountain” feel to the house, which would have manifested through adding stone and timber features on the exterior.

The Browns are very happy with the result. “We made choices about this house that only a small percentage of the population might want, but it’s perfect for us.” Stauffer also couldn’t be more proud of the completed home. Throughout the process, he became a real believer in the style. “The Cape Cod style is charming, historic and livable. It’s a novelty of sorts here, but it’s a welcome novelty because the architecture is attractive and it reminds us of our American roots, going back to the founding of our nation.”


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